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The O'odham Maze of Life and Personhood

Plaque with "Labyrinth" Design, 20th Century
Pima culture; Southern Arizona
Willow, devil's claw and tule; 15 1/2 in.
Gift of Mrs. Mary J. Newland

Theseus, He Pleases Us

Labyrinths play important roles in many cultures’ stories, persisting into modern pop culture with novels, film, and television. In HBO’s hit series Westworld, it is a maze which lies at the midst of a mysterious and winding plot—functioning as a symbol of the series’ persecuted group and so much more. As Westworld’s second season begins airing within the week, the Bowers Blog takes the opportunity to look at the maze of the O'odham cultures on which the show’s symbol is based, the specific myth it comes from, and how the original version is similar and different from the one depicted on screen [beware for mild spoilers].

More traditional Pima basketry tray (20279)
Gift of Mrs. Mary J. Newland

Made by Pima Doñas

The O'odham occupy much of Arizona. Though the term is a disambiguation for several specific cultures such as the Akimel O'odham (Pima) and the Tohono O'odham (previously Papago) all of these groups as well as some neighboring tribes made similar basketry trays used for food preparation. This object is slightly different, coming instead from a later period in the 20thCentury when basketry objects were no longer being woven for their utilitarian function, but instead for decoration. The O’odham were well-known for never using dyes in their basketry, instead relying on weaving in the long, hooked seed pods of devil’s claw to create darker designs. The darker color of the devil’s claw in this plaque’s designs—a byproduct of the different cultivation practices between the different O’odham cultures—indicate that it was made by the Pima. Generally designs can be misleading when attempting to identify basketry from the Southwest, but the “man in the labyrinth” design is traditionally specific to the O’odham.

Like Elder Brothers Do

The great seal of the Salt River 
Pima-Maricopa Indian Community

In the legends of the O'odham peoples, a great flood drowns all but three beings. Each of these three attempts to recreate man from earth and eventually Elder Brother (Se-eh-ha or Iʼitoi) is successful. He treats his creations poorly however, and they kill him in the spring inside his cave. After four days Elder Brother used his immense power to rise from the dead and departed to the other side of the world to gather an army of warriors made by his younger brother. When Elder Brother returned to the lands of his own creations, the Akimel O’odham, he conquered and subjugated them. As an old man, he returned to his old home. Fearful to experience retribution once more, he turned his old home into a maze. When warriors did come to defeat Elder Brother, they became lost navigating the labyrinthine passages and suffocated deep within the mountain. The symbol may have begun purely as an analog for this creation story with the design depicting Elder Brother standing at the top of his winding home. Over time the story has come to mean something entirely different for the Pima and Maricopa who now use it as a seal.

Westworld's maze in the hands of the show's protagonist, Dolores Abernathy.

Growing Dolores

The maze has come to symbolize life itself to the Pima. The twists and turns are each moments of joy or anguish. The goal, as with any maze, is the end found at its center. Dorothy Lewis was one of the pivotal figures in keeping the stories and culture of the Pima tribe alive. According to her it is a “dream there... when you get to the middle of the maze.” Such an archetypal construct was simply too attractive to not somehow find its way into popular culture. Westworld is a theme park designed to replicate the wild west with artificial humans serving as hosts. The series follows these synthetic characters as they strive towards personhood. In the show the recurring symbol of the maze eventually reveals itself to have come from a children’s game and to have been one of the impetuses for the hosts’ creators to have toyed with consciousness in the first place. Westworld’s maze is distinct from that of the Pima maze both visually and symbolically, though the two still find a great deal of common ground. Both the placement of the man in the center of the labyrinth rather than at the entrance and the lack of dead ends were likely changes tailored to meet the narrative demands of the show. In both versions of the maze, though, we see beings constructed by creators journey through the symbol with the ultimate goal of finding a dream at the center of the maze.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

Two Photographers Outside of Orange, California
Three Vignettes of Frank Coburn

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Comments 1

Guest - Mai-Anh Tran on Thursday, 19 April 2018 10:59

So excited for season 2!

So excited for season 2!
Wednesday, 22 May 2024

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